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The Pugnacious Conscience of L.A. Theater : Joe Stern is one man in two worlds with triple intensity

The scene wasn’t working, and producer Joseph Stern couldn’t stand it anymore. He jumped up on the stage and showed the actor how he would do it. When the actor pleaded exhaustion, Stern tore into him. If the actor really cared about the play, he’d work until midnight if he had to.

“It was after midnight,” laughs Lee Shallat, director of “Wenceslas Square,” now in repertory at Stern’s Matrix Theater. “But it didn’t matter to Joe. He had this great idea, and he couldn’t understand why everybody wouldn’t leap up and do it.”

Put Stern on a movie set and the same thing happens. “He just hounds people to do their best,” says Tony Ganz, who was executive producer with producer Stern on three films. “Often he’s less than completely popular at the end of a shoot. But the movie is infinitely better for it.”

Stern, 49 today, is relentless in his pursuit of the perfect scene. The results are films such as “Into Thin Air,” a 1985 CBS movie-of-the-week starring Ellen Burstyn, and plays such as Lyle Kessler’s “Orphans,” which had its world premiere at the Matrix before heading on to success off-Broadway and as a major film from Alan Pakula.

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Former actor Stern is no industry executive dabbling in theater from time to time. He manages an ongoing and consistent presence in both arenas. He is also among the most outspoken and passionate advocates for 99-seat theaters here. A self-appointed--and often pugnacious--conscience for local theater, he has taken on everyone from Mark Taper Forum artistic director Gordon Davidson to Actors’ Equity western regional director Edward Weston.

Stern rushes to the scene--invited or uninvited--whenever he or Los Angeles theater appears threatened. “All of my fights have been in service of this community,” says Stern. “It doesn’t mean I am right about everything but it means that’s my button. Theater is so fragile.”

Until this season, Stern kept his economic risks down by producing just one or two plays a year and leasing his theater out the rest of the time. Rentals helped subsidize such Stern hits as Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” Lyle Kessler’s “Orphans” and Simon Gray’s “The Common Pursuit,” a play that premiered in England, then was reworked here before becoming an Off-Broadway hit.

But, early this year, after a visit to the Los Angeles Theatre Center, Stern decided to step up his producing tempo. “I saw all the activity and it conjured up an old, yearning feeling: I do a play, it’s very successful, then there’s nothing to follow it. There was no continuity, and it was very frustrating.”

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Never mind that he was winding up production on “Dad,” a new film starring Jack Lemmon. On weekends he read and selected plays. And when “Dad” shooting stopped, rehearsals at the Matrix began. The first play, “Wenceslas Square,” opened to rave notices at July-end, and his second play, the recently opened Russian contemporary drama “A Man With Connections,” was also well received.

Watch Stern buzz around, answering box office phones, hustling subscriptions and overseeing rehearsals. “I like the action,” shrugs the small, intense Tom Hayden look-alike. “I like putting up stuff and going against the critics. I like putting it on the line. I like to be judged.”

Stern grew up just two blocks from where the Matrix Theater is now, joined Fairfax High’s Thespian Society, then went on to Los Angeles City College and UCLA and a few local acting jobs. After six months in the Army, he headed off to New York. By the time he left 10 years later, he had been in dozens of shows, capped with a long stint replacing Judd Hirsch in “The Hot L Baltimore.”

He came back to Los Angeles, pursuing a movie deal that never happened. Now theater took second billing to the industry. He was a line producer on “Cagney & Lacey” and a production executive on “Winds of War.” He turned out six movies of the week, five TV pilots, two full-length features.

But while the screen fed his family, theater fed his soul. He credits acting buddy William Devane with pushing him into producing as a career. “He had a natural talent for putting things together and keeping them together,” says Devane, who co-produced “A Whistle in the Dark” off-Broadway with Stern in 1969. “He didn’t have a junkie’s addiction to acting. He was good at it, but it wasn’t the first thing in his mind.”

Soon after he moved back to Los Angeles in 1974, Stern helped produce “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been . . . ?” Based on testimony from House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, the 1975 production got national attention and lasted 14 months.

In 1980, Stern started producing at the Matrix, a place he bought with money borrowed from his father, a barber and beauty supply salesman. (Devane, a partner in the Matrix until Stern bought him out in the early ‘80s, also borrowed money from Stern’s father.) Extensive remodeling turned the Melrose Avenue theater into one of the plushest 99-seat houses in town. And on its long, narrow stage, a stage as wide as a Broadway house, Stern enticed the best actors around to work for him.

“In film and TV, there’s often somebody else you can blame,” says Stern. “Since you’re not the ultimate boss in that medium, it’s never totally your head on the line. Here it is on the line, and I like that.”

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“Joe wants it to be his vision,” says Sam Weisman, who directed “Betrayal,” “Common Pursuit” and other plays for Stern. “If people can play out his vision with him, that’s fine. If they can’t, there will be somebody else.”

Stern is willing to wait. He didn’t produce “Two Small Bodies” at the Matrix for two years, for instance, because he didn’t have the director or actor he wanted. “I read a lot of very well-known actresses,” he says, “and I couldn’t find what it was. But when I saw Judith Ivey and director Norman Rene I knew he had solved the play and she was the right person for it. And I brought them out here. You didn’t do that in waiver then--but I gave him $1,000 and her $1,000. It was a lot of money. I gave her my mother’s car.”

When Charles Gordone’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play “No Place to be Somebody” was floundering in previews a few years ago, Stern flew the playwright out from New York to help out, then shelled out the money for an extra week of previews. He also extended previews when John Osborne’s “Inadmissible Evidence” ran into problems prior to opening. “ ‘Inadmissible Evidence’ would have been a flop if it had opened as originally scheduled,” says that show’s director, Kristoffer Siegel-Tabori.

“The most important thing in Joe’s mind is doing it right,” adds Tabori, now directing “A Man With Connections” for Stern. “There’s never been a time in my experience that his work the last week hasn’t made a profound difference. He makes you look better. He saved me on ‘Inadmissible Evidence,’ and he saved me on this one.”

Everyone queried for this story lauds Stern’s ability to spot talent; Stern agrees this is among his virtues. “I have never given anybody their talent, but my ability has always been to recognize it before others,” he says. “I don’t need to surround myself with people who make me comfortable. If I did that, the productions would only be as good as I am and I want the productions to be better than I am.”

That doesn’t mean he won’t take risks. He first hired Deborah Raymond and Dorian Vernacchio, his resident design team, shortly after they arrived in Los Angeles, going on the recommendation of Virginia Raymond, Deborah’s mother and Stern’s former agent. “It was pretty much an act of faith,” says Vernacchio. “We met and we talked. And he took a chance.”

Many of the actors in Stern’s early plays were people he knew in New York, but that circle too has widened. “You’ll find some of the best acting in Los Angeles at that theater,” says Susan Dietz, artistic director of the Pasadena Playhouse. “He’s managed to attract actors very serious about their craft and who have a great love of the theater.”

Lawrence Pressman, for instance, thinks his work in “Betrayal” at the Matrix was “the most daring work I’ve done on stage.” Adds Penny Fuller, who also starred in that production: “We get plays that stretch our muscles, but it’s not like it’s done to please the audience or to indulge the actors. The two take the journey together into a new place, and Joe is responsible for igniting that.”

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Stern couldn’t have said it better himself: “Life is dangerous, and theater is about danger. You can’t be dangerous enough in the theater. . . . I’m going for the jugular every time. Kill the audience. Don’t let ‘em get out of their seats. Just absolutely affect their lives.”

“Who I am is, I cannot roll over,” says Stern. He pushed Olympic Arts Festival director Robert Fitzpatrick to give money to local theater producers as well as to foreign ones. He chastised one colleague in print for what he considered excessive ticket prices, took on another he felt was not being fair to his actors when he moved a play to a bigger house, and has often said some fairly provocative things about Davidson and the Taper.

“Joe has been prickly,” responds Davidson. “He likes to take pot shots. But I feel friendly toward him. I admire the work he’s done. And I know there have been things he’s seen here that he likes.”

Stern’s greatest wrath has been heaped on Actors’ Equity. “There’s a relationship between the fact that the union here doesn’t recognize small theater-- and never has--and the fact that New York has never recognized Los Angeles theater. There’s the perception that what we are doing is amateur. The union propagandizes this theory and New York takes it up, which invalidates our work.”

Equity executive Weston responds that “I find it nonproductive to comment on these continuous and gratuitous attacks,” but Stern isn’t likely to stop. For Stern, small theaters like his are sacred grounds where “heroic” attempts are made to create magic on a tiny budget. “Do you think you’re going to see a better production of “A Man With Connections” in New York? Better actors than Charlie Hallahan and Carolyn Seymour? Who’s kidding who?

That’s how Stern talks, his conversation peppered with talk of personal journeys, revelations and defeats. Stern seems both astonished and wounded when people don’t play the game the way he does.

Two of his most bittersweet experiences were his work on “Orphans” and “Common Pursuit.” Both shows brought some attention to the Matrix and huge attention to their authors. Stern will readily tell you not only how much money his theater lost on each production but also how much money--and career advancement--he figures that each of the two playwrights made on the same plays.

His anger at “Common Pursuit” author Gray, for instance, comes mainly from Gray’s minimizing the contributions of not just the Matrix but of the play’s actors and director here. Stern has kept New York press clippings of Gray largely dismissing the production here and refuses to read Gray’s book, “How’s That for Telling ‘Em, Fat Lady?,” about the experience: “These actors were getting $25 a week. They were co-writing. They made the play with him.”

It wasn’t only that he spent $65,000 on the 10-week production--a fortune in small theaters--but that he feels Gray didn’t share the win. “I get off on people succeeding. The whole thrill for me is to win together. The only thing I wanted out of those experiences was to be there on opening night, have a drink afterwards, go home and have the theater get its recognition.”

Stern can admit being wrong, however. Actor Pressman quit in “Betrayal” just before opening night because he felt Stern “wronged” him, Pressman says. There was a misunderstanding. Stern confronted Pressman “with second-hand information, I took great umbrage and quit. But as soon as it was clear to him what happened, he clarified the situation and I opened in the play.”

Yet Pressman can still say that Stern’s “flaw” as a producer “is that he’s not enough of a killer. He will make enormous allowances for someone’s possibly psychotic personality or drugs, for drunks and just plain bad guys . . . in order to nurture the artistry that Joe knows is in them.”

Stern refers to this season’s four directors as a sort of family, and family is very important to Stern. He’s been married for 25 years to his college sweetheart Peppy, who manages Kehillath Israel Synagogue and who puts together the Matrix’s opening night parties. Their oldest son, Joshua, 24, who has an offstage role in “Connections,” started out tearing up tickets when he was 11, and younger son Luke, 19, is one of the Matrix’s two house managers. Stern’s brother and mother come to all his shows, as did his father until his death in 1984.

He clearly tries to foster similar closeness at work. He gives the actors in his plays books, jewelry or other small, personalized gifts. And besides each directing a play this first season, directors Tabori, Shallat, Michael Arabian and Peggy Shannon will also act as Stern’s “lieutenants,” offering aid and succor to each other’s productions.

Stern and his directors read “at least” 100 scripts, did readings of six, then selected the four plays in their “double double bill.” Actress Olympia Dukakis, whom Stern met on the “Dad” set and who runs the Whole Theatre in Montclair, N.J., turned him on to two of this season’s four plays and helped stage a reading here of George Walker’s play “Better Living”; when the play opens here in October, Stern will use two of the actors who appeared in it at the Whole Theatre.

To keep tickets affordable, Stern charges just $12.50 a ticket--with subscriptions bringing that down to $9 a show. Even with minimal sets, he figures the four plays will cost $120,000 to mount and run, and says he’s already over budget. Supplementing box office receipts will be rentals the Matrix amassed over the last two years and “a few” government grants.

Director Shannon, who has also been named Stern’s first associate artistic director, says she hopes to widen the Matrix’s activities, staff and revenue base--if Stern allows her to. “My orientation is not institutional,” responds Stern. “I brought Peggy in because hers is, and somewhere in the middle we’ll meet.”

Stern can’t predict if there will be another season--"I don’t know where we’ll be next summer"--but he is clearly relishing this one. After “Connections” opened a few weeks ago, he felt the same old let-down when he got home, he says, but “I told my wife that this time it was different--both plays are up and running and two more are ready to begin. We’re a real theater.”

* DAN SULLIVAN

Joe Stern’s pride of service. Page 39


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